Mark Makela/The New York Times

Despite pandemic fears, thousands of voters across New York State showed up at their local polling stations to participate in the Democratic and Republican primaries.

June 25, 2020

Kelles, Kopko Lead Election Night Returns, but Surge in Absentee Ballots Means Winner Won’t Be Known for Weeks

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Tompkins County Legislator Anna Kelles (D-2nd District) and Ithaca attorney Edward Kopko led election night results by wide margins in the Democratic primary races for Assembly District 125 and District Attorney, respectively. But a clear winner won’t come for weeks — uncounted absentee ballots comprise more than half of the total votes.

As of 12:50 a.m. Wednesday, all precincts in Tompkins County and 33 of 51 precincts in Cortland County were reporting results. Kelles garnered 34.1 percent of the vote in the seven-person assembly primary, followed by Ithaca Common Council Alderperson Seph Murtagh Ph.D. ’09 (D-2nd Ward) with 20.2 percent. In the primary for Tompkins County District Attorney, Kopko led incumbent Matthew Van Houten with 57.5 percent of the vote.

Read The Sun’s Election Night coverage here.

Across New York State, there was a massive surge in absentee ballot returns for the June 23 election. In Tompkins County, results from in-person voting represent less than half of the electorate: While 4,749 voters chose to vote in-person, over 11,000 residents requested an absentee ballot — 7,346 had been returned to the county’s Board of Elections as Tuesday noon, Stephen Dewitt, the Democratic commissioner, told The Sun.

And these ballots won’t begin to be counted until July 1, Dewitt added, delaying a definitive election result until at least then, if not longer.

While Kelles was elated over her lead in the polls, she said it was important to wait for the absentee ballots to be counted before declaring herself the winner of the Democratic primary.

“The turnout is amazing,” Kelles said. “We had wonderful candidates. We had a dynamic race. This is what we would want from democracy always — this level of engagement.”

Three days before the election, the Ithaca Times first reported that Kelles faced scrutiny over receiving $4,500 in donations from Costa Lambrou of Lambrou Real Estate, Edger Enterprises’ Jessica Edger Hillman and local businesswoman Elizabeth Classen Ambrose in early May. The three donors have been involved in the development of City Harbor, a project that aims to revive Ithaca’s waterfront with boating and golfing amenities, housing, a promenade and a medical center.

Weeks after the donations, Kelles — as a Tompkins County legislator and chair of the Housing and Economic Development Committee — sent a letter in support of the project to the Department of Transportation, after the committee raised objections over the project’s plans to reduce traffic in the area.

The letter created ethical concerns that the donations may have swayed Kelles to advocate for City Harbor, even though the initiative already had widespread support among elected city officials. Lambrou, Hillman and Classen maintained that the donations were solely in support of Kelles’ campaign, not City Harbor. The Tompkins County legislator has since returned the $4,500.

“It’s uncontroversial at this point, locally,” Kelles said about the waterfront development. “Hopefully, at the state as well because the community I think will benefit from revitalization of the waterfront.

Kelles earned endorsements from notable New York progressives like former gubernatorial candidates Cynthia Nixon and Zephyr Teachout as well as New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.

Local groups like Sunrise Ithaca, the Working Families Party, the Tompkins-Cortland Building & Construction Trades Council, Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 267 and Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Union Local 3 also endorsed Kelles heading into the primary.

In what was a contentious D.A. primary, Kopko’s messaging of police accountability and transparency from the office appeared to woo voters. Incumbent Van Houten’s handling of a 2019 incident of police brutality on the Ithaca Commons drew repeated criticism during the campaign.

Kopko’s campaign manager Gideon Casper told The Sun that he was optimistic about the outcome, but insisted that he is “very cautious … the hard work that we put in, [the result] is no longer in our hands,” referring to the large volume of absentee ballots.

While Tuesday’s election night returns across Tompkins County and the 125th Assembly District do not provide a clear winner, one key takeaway can still be observed: This November, we may not know who the president-elect is until weeks after election night.